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Science Museum gallery does away with numbers to tell the story of maths

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David Rooney, lead curator for london’s science museum’s new mathematics gallery, has expressed his hope that the £5m (US$6.3m, €5.8m) addition will be able to help inspire people into taking an interest in maths by telling the stories of the subject instead of showing purely the statistics.

Mathematics: The Winton Gallery opened its doors on 8 December, showcasing more than 100 objects from the museum’s collection – including an early example of the Enigma code-breaking machine, one of Britain’s first calculators and a 1970s cash register – highlighting the central role of mathematical practice in our lives.

“We had a Mathematics Gallery in the same space which opened in 1985 and it was very much aimed at people who already understood mathematics and mathematical concepts,” said Rooney, speaking to Attractions Management.

“Research we commissioned in 2009 showed us that many people are glad they left maths behind at school. Even if you don’t realise it, maths underpins everything that we care about in the modern world.

“What we’ve built is something which tells stories about mathematics. It’s not trying to teach it, it’s trying to inspire people to see it differently.”

Aiming to put the ‘M’ in STEM, the gallery couples with the recently launched Wonderlab, which has its own maths wing. Combined, the two galleries teach the basic principles of maths and tell its history.

“We looked for stories and physical tangible artefacts, which give accounts of mathematics in various fields,” said Rooney. “We have for example a very large model of a ship, which is the story of hydrodynamics but also a story about tankers and operational research. The dice we have on display are random number generators but they were also used in the 17th century by statisticians formalising the mathematics of statistics using dice. It’s a real diversity. Wherever people’s interests are, whatever knowledge and understanding they bring, we hope they’ll find something here.”

Mathematics is even showcased through the gallery’s design, created by the late zaha hadid and her architectural practice ZHA. The structures inside the gallery, which are curved flowing shapes around the central exhibit – a 1920s aeroplane – are the solution of the Navier-Stokes equations of aerodynamics – a solution of equations developed in the 19th century. That same mathematics solution, which is designed to create the airflow of the aeroplane it surrounds, also follows the layout of the showcases on the gallery floor.

It’s a subject which is perhaps uniquely important for a science museum to cover,” said Rooney. “At the Science Museum we deal with all aspects of STEM. We haven’t yet dealt with maths in a nourishing way and this is our first opportunity to do so. We wanted to do it with as much power and flair as we could, which led to our selection of Zaha Hadid who herself was a mathematician. She trained in maths before she turned to architecture and her work and her practices remain entirely driven by ideas of maths and geometry, which we felt was important.”

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David Rooney, lead curator for London’s Science Museum’s new mathematics gallery, has expressed his hope that the £5m (US$6.3m, €5.8m) addition will be able to help inspire people into taking an interest in maths by telling the stories of the subject instead of showing purely the statistics.
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